For most great directors there is a period of great creative fertility where a series of masterpiece appear in quick succession. Think of Hitchcock with Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Think of Ingmar Bergman with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring. Think of Federico Fellini with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and 8½.
There is a similar run of masterpieces in the output of Yasujiro Ozu. Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) are often referred to as the ‘Noriko trilogy’ since the lead actress of each of these films, Setsuko Hara, plays a young woman named Noriko. The three Norikos are not related but one would have to think that there is a common thematic element that Ozu and his co-screenwriter Kogo Noda are drawing our attention to by so naming the heroines of all three films.
One of the traps of writing about movies, is that it is easy to impose a construct on the films and directors that might not be there, no matter how good your argument might be. The classic take on these films is to say that Ozu and Noda were examining the life of young women in post World War II Japan. I don’t believe that was their intention. I believe they were simply doing what they always did throughout their collaboration: depicting the tensions and, often, the disintegration of the post World War Japanese family. The fact that all three films pivot on the central ‘Noriko’ figure does give this special focus, but I don’t believe that is the intention.
The three Norikos are very different characters. The most complicated is the Noriko of Late Spring. Here she is the grown daughter of a widowed father. They live together in cozy harmony. Noriko is happy with the arrangement and is not very interested in starting a home life of her own. Soon, external pressures come to bear and her father is convinced that he is being selfish by keeping her home with him, even though this is what they both want. This play out to its logical conclusion, and in true Ozu fashion, the ending is quietly devastating.
The Noriko of Early Summer is another figure entirely. She is the member of a somewhat chaotic and somewhat self-centered family. They are held together by familial bonds but also by economic necessity. They all need to live together given the harsh economic realities of post World War II Japan. The family is constantly pressuring Noriko to make a marriage that will be advantageous to them all. At first she resists the notion entirely, then rejects the suitors that are selected for her. In the end, in what in the West might be viewed as an example of Feminist strength, she chooses someone whose situation forces Noriko (and her salary) to leave the family home, ultimately leading to the dispersal of the family unit.
Much has been written of the Noriko of Tokyo Story. Setsuko Hara’s performance here is astounding. The quiet grace tinged with tragedy, the hints of great dissatisfaction with her past and present life are powerful. She is probably the most complex and fully integrated person among the three Norikos, especially contrasted with the somewhat neurotic chastity of Late Spring and the ambivalent sense of self in Early Summer.
Please watch all three of these films. They are each towering masterpieces.